Memories of Port Nelson


As a young lad in the 1930's, fishing off the wharves was a much enjoyed pastime. The two Nelson ferries were coal burners. The coal hulks was tied up on the seaward side of the ferries to bunker them using coal baskets.

In those days Nelson had about ten shipping companies, some would have but one ship, many of them Scows.

Port Nelson LawesPort of Nelson docks and industrial area with the Maitai River Estuary, Nelson City and suburbs beyond, Nelson Region, 1956. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-41163-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 
Click image to enlarge

The “Home Boats” (British Ships) would load up with meat and fruit -  all brought to the wharf by steam train for the cargo to be loaded directly into the ships.

All petrol and diesel was brought in by overseas vessels, as New Zealand only had the one coastal tanker, the Tanea.

The largest local Shipping Company was the Anchor Shipping Company. They owned seven ships, five of which were coal burners. The two coal burning ferries, Arahura and Matangi were withdrawn from service and replaced by the S.S Ngaio in 1950.

The Union Company coaster Waipahi and Karu were frequent callers to the port. The schooner Piri brought explosives from Australia.

I went to sea in 1952, my first ship being the Motu, a small wooden coaster run by the Karamea Shipping Company. I did the last trip on the Ngaio in 1953 and still remember the band playing as the ship departed with the paying off pennant flying from the mast.

Nelson had a small slipway behind the Tank Farm, a busy place where Scows carried out their annual surveys and repairs. I was on the Echo one time on this slip.

You could earn a living at the Port “Seagulling”* on the wharves, and working on ships while on survey, with the Seamen servicing the rigging or by labouring as tankies, cleaning ballast and fuel tanks.

When the present slipway was built, the Anchor Company employed their own team of riggers, who were kept busy carrying out work on their own ships and others visiting the port.

Today you can not get near the wharves because of security barriers, long gone are the days when, on a Sunday afternoon, families would walk around the port looking at the ships.

*Note from Tom Rowling: Seagulling was the term used on the wharf for casual labour. When the harbours were busy there was always a shortage of men to work the ships, so casuals would be taken on. This was referred to as Seagulling on the wharf. I had a friend who owned a shop in Tahuna, he put a manager in and spent his time Seagulling on the wharf, it was far better for his health than working in a dingy shop.

2014. Updated June 2020

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  • Greetings Dave,
    Do you have any info on the M.N. Association ?? I haven't heard a thing since Ian passed away.
    Barry Howe.

    Posted by Barry Howe, 16/02/2016 5:37pm (8 years ago)

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Further sources - Memories of Port Nelson



  • Branford, R.G., and Parr, WH., The Film Archive, ‘Port Nelson 1949’, Medianet, Nelson Public Library
  • The Film Archive, ‘Port Nelson ’80’, Nelson Public Library, Medianet, Nelson Public Library

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